Q&A: Can Plants Grow in Space?

NASA researchers have adopted a variety of innovative techniques to care for plants in space. Courtesy of NASA.

We always assume that oak trees and pink lilies grow only on Earth, but can they sprout in outer space? A recent NASA experiment conducted on the International Space Station suggests that they can.

The researchers observed a small, white flower called Arabidopsis thaliana as it germinated and grew in a weightless environment. The team demonstrated that patterns previously associated with plant growth on Earth can occur in outer space as well. For example, the root tips still exhibited “skewing,” or growing at an angle, and “waving,” or regularly changing growth direction — just as they do in soil on Earth but without gravity to guide them.

A scientist sits surrounded by test plants. Courtesy NASA.

Zero gravity conditions pose separate challenges for plant care, but NASA researchers have developed solutions for many of these issues. For example, since the lack of gravity prevents the use of watering cans, researchers developed special tubes that run through the plant’s roots that can deliver water without flooding the plant. NASA researchers now believe that plants can flourish in weightless environments. In fact, space agriculturalists are investigating the possibility of growing plants on Mars and on the moon.

NASA’s findings are especially consequential to those who wonder if humans will eventually move to another planet. Anna-Lisa Paul, a plant geneticist and the lead author of the study, remains optimistic about growing food crops in microgravity. “When we saw the first pictures come back from orbit […] we were quite surprised,” Paul said in an interview with National Geographic. “Bottom line is that although plants ‘know’ that they are in a novel environment, they ultimately do just fine.”

NASA scientists grew a white flower called Arabidopsis thaliana on the International Space Station. Courtesy of Fotopedia.